For Britons, the Spitfire is synonymous with victory. The little fighter plane’s manoeuvrability and firepower in the Battle of Britain helped the RAF defeat the Luftwaffe and forced the Germans to cancel their plans to invade Britain in the autumn of 1940. The Spitfire became a symbol of our fighting spirit during the war.
So when a team of engineers at Duxford Airfield began rebuilding a rare Mk1 Spitfire that had crash-landed on a beach in France during the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940, it was an event worth recording.
Channel 4 sent a camera crew and its resident mechanic and presenter Guy Martin – host of Speed With Guy Martin and How Britain Worked – to help them get the Spitfire off the ground, in a project costing an estimated £3million. He was the obvious choice to present and was also named after Second World War flying ace Guy Gibson, who led the Dambusters raid in 1943.
“My dad was mad on the Second World War and still is,” explains Guy, 32, who is also a famous amateur motorcycle road racer. “And the Spitfire was the saviour of the Second World War, so to be involved in the restoration and learn the story behind the plane and pilot was just brilliant.”
The Mk I Spitfire rebuilt at Duxford as part of a two-and-a-half-year restoration project has a colourful history attached to it. After he crash-landed in France, the plane’s pilot, Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson, was taken prisoner by the Germans.
But Geoffrey attempted to escape POW camps so many times that he was eventually moved to the allegedly escape-proof Colditz Castle, where he came across his old flying mate Douglas Bader. They were among the POWs who designed and built a glider in secret with a view to another escape, although the war ended before it could be attempted.
“This plane stands for so much in British history, but for me as a mechanic it’s interesting because it’s so technologically advanced despite having been designed in the late 1930s,” says Guy.
Guy helped put the plane back together using original plans and the rotting frame of the 1940 plane, which had been buried under sand until 1986.
Because Guy fixes trucks for a living at a plant in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, he easily grasped the mechanics of the Spitfire.
“I’m quite used to the attention to detail required, but doing it with those lads took it to another level. Every last rivet on the Spitfire had to be perfect, it was great to be part of that.”
The highlight for Guy was refitting the 27-litre, 2,000 horsepower Rolls Royce Merlin engine. “It’s a massive moment,” he says. “The Merlin was the engine in the Lancaster bomber and the Mosquito.” In fact, Guy owns a Merlin himself. “I bought one a couple of years ago,” he explains. “I’m just about to move to a new house and I’m going to have it mounted in my front room. It’s too good for the garage.”
Despite being in demand as a presenter, Guy refuses to film for more than two days a week, so that he can keep his day job as a mechanic. Guy is the antithesis of a fame-hungry TV personality. The TT racer never watches TV and spends his evenings in his shed, fixing bikes and tinkering with engines.
Restoring the old Spitfire to its former glory was a dream come true for Guy. After its restoration, the plane was taken for its first flight in 74 years by pilot John Romain, making it one of only four Mk1 Supermarine Spitfires still flying in the world. “For it to go from rotting bits of nothing to see it flying was great,” says Guy. “I’m not an emotional person, but I have to say watching it take flight again almost made me well up a little bit.”